Getting People to Live Downtown

Commentary, Municipal Government, Frontier Centre

A generally accepted premise of modern urban thinking states that the future of downtown districts in large cities lies with turning them into interesting and entertaining places to live, not just work.

Downtowns in the largest American cities are being reborn. Changing demographics and rising wealth levels are creating an eclectic mix of empty-nesters fleeing sterile suburbs, childless professional couples and highly educated, single technocrats. All of them are strongly attracted to the cultural resources and a sense of architectural place provided in the core of older cities.

As well, inner-city neighbourhoods throughout the U.S. are rebounding thanks to grass-roots charitable groups and community development corporations rebuild their own communities. Looser immigration laws are providing a steady flow of new residents with purchasing power and entrepreneurial vitality. Clinton’s remarkably successful welfare reforms have spurred the local economy. A focus on street policing and strict enforcement of even minor laws – the “broken window” theory of policing — added safety to the recipe for America’s downtown revival.

It’s clear that there’s no single magic bullet for reviving city centres. The formula for urban renaissance is rather a complex set of policy combinations. In Canada, and particularly Winnipeg, this connection eludes policy makers, who have traditionally seen the challenge from a narrow program perspective, absent the “bigger picture”. Therefore substantial sums of public money have been invested in superficial stop-and-go efforts like new streetscaping and development plans, all amid continued decline. Ad hoc subsidies for a showcase project or two and tax credit programs are a second-best approach to downtown revitalization. While providing some highly visible near-term optics, they do not effectively harness the main vehicle for re-inventing the old central business district — increasing the permanent downtown population.

Why not identify and then remove regulatory obstacles that prevent gentrification of the area? Tom Dixon, a veteran property owner in the Exchange, can recite a panoply of examples of bureaucratic inflexibility. Fire codes require drywall partitions that don’t work. Wood beams must be covered with expensive, superfluous and hideous fire-resistant paint. Preserving an historic old cage elevator means consultations with various levels of government. Until recently, the attitude among officialdom seemed to be that old warehouse, office, and commercial buildings were “unfit” for residential use.

Zoning and building codes are two peas in the same pod. Both presume to shape the urban landscape according to some planner’s vision of the ideal world. Both impose an enormous drag on the ability of the market to shape living spaces that people want.

In the U.S. early downtown colonists like artists typically reclaimed and converted old office space into residences. They simply ignored zoning rules in urban war zones like inner-city Detroit and created value in derelict, abandoned structures. Conventional city-planning procedures have traditionally burdened potential urban migrants with cumbersome lists of approved uses which forbade or discouraged residential use. Why should it be so hard and expensive to convert plentiful warehouse space into living spaces in downtown Winnipeg? Old central planning processes in government die-hard.

Various studies have demonstrated that zoning substantially increases development and operating costs. Red tape generates a highly politicized process characterized by notoriously unpredictable delays. It harms the poor the most because it often discourages high density. In Houston, Texas, a thriving megalopolis with no zoning, housing and business costs are low. Its racially mixed, inner-city neighbourhoods have repeatedly rejected proposals to introduce zoning there to keep it so. Would anyone, besides the old planning crowd, lose a thing if the Exchange district, as an experiment, were to become a “zoning-free” zone?

Rigid building codes are the next government-imposed drag on the downtown’s possibilities. Modern building codes far exceed the standards in place during the early 20th century construction boom that created the Exchange District. Forcing the many interesting and historic buildings to conform with 2001 standards is a straightforward invitation to bulldozers and wrecking balls. It becomes easier and cheaper to level the building and start anew. Then we lose the main drawing feature of the core area, the unique architecture that attracts the urban resident who is tired of suburban blandness.

In hand with a moratorium on zoning, why not exempt the old district from the regulatory obsolescence produced by modern building codes? With provincial help, original codes in the Exchange District could be grandfathered through to today. Wins Bridgman, an architect who specializes in rejuvenating inner city structures, says the original codes were well thought out and remain effective. He favours more flexibility, so infrastructure can be enhanced with minor tweaking instead of catastrophic alterations. Preserving the character of the area by keeping old structures viable may indeed mean a trade-off. Some buildings would continue to have, for example, no elevators, special parking and sprinkler systems. Many will buy it. Those that don’t can live elsewhere.

Intelligent deregulation of the downtown to encourage residential there will, however, remain severely hobbled by Manitoba’s most destructive attack on the central city’s future — rent control. Ending it would supercharge the downtown population immediately as private capital started flowing again into rental investments in the Exchange.

We have nothing to lose but broken windows and empty buildings.